Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle
or, Daring Adventures in Elephant Land
By Victor Appleton Book #10 ©1911
Review by JP Karenko, June 2005
Full-color image courtesy of Carl Swanstorm
Duotone and White Quad images courtesy of Mark Snyder
Note: some of the language, references & attitudes, while acceptable at the time they were written, are not Politically Correct, today.
Summary: No official summary was ever provided with any of the old Tom Swift books. However, without giving too much away, the plot can be summed up as follows:
The story opens with Tom daydreaming of African Safaris while test-firing his new Electric Rifle. It works too well and toasts a hole in his neighbor's dining room wall, prompting an outraged visit from the toastee-in-question. A quick application of cash settles ruffled feathers, and some unspecified safety features are added to the weapon, to prevent a recurrence of the accident. As luck would have it, a famous African Safari Master is in town, shopping for a new big game rifle. He hooks up with Tom and a new custom-built airship, the Black Hawk, is designed & constructed. Tom, Ned, Mr. Damon and the hunter, Mr. Durban, are off to the Dark Continent via steamship, in search of ivory and adventure.
The group crosses paths with Floyd Anderson, who was introduced in Book #6, Wireless Message. He is on a quest to rescue a husband and wife Christian missionary team captured by pygmy savages in the jungles of the interior of Africa. The Quest now becomes ivory, adventure and rescue.
Danger encroaches at every turn, and Tom gets to use his new weapon to slay an amazing variety of beasts that swim, crawl, and stampede around him. Needless to say, the rifle is effective on smaller but no less dangerous creatures, too, and does fearful duty when the group is attacked by savage tribesmen.
You can probably guess the outcome, but you'll have to read the story to be sure.
This book is available online. See: Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle
Cast of Characters (More or less in order of appearance)
Tom Swift - Intrepid inventor & mechanic. Plucky, lively, resourceful, brave and clever. Home-schooled at a college level by his father, Barton Swift. Athlete and hunter. Familiar with how to stalk game and firearms. Loves all things mechanical. Is a decent cook, too.
Ned Newton-Chum & companion of Tom, currently employed in Shopton 1st National Bank.
Jack, The Newsboy - NLN or description given. Passing mention.
Barton Swift - Widower. Wealthy and conservative. Inventor, master machinist and holder of numerous patents. In this episode, recovering from severe medical condition affecting his heart and circulation.
Eradicate Sampson, A.K.A. Eradicate or Rad - Rad's middle names, (Andrew Jackson Abraham Lincoln, ) are no longer used. Aged stereotypical Negro journeyman jack-of-all-trades. "Eradicates dirt." Now is in full-time residence on the Swift estate, and maintains his own chicken coop. Heavy deep-south accent and Uncle Remus attitude. Caretaker of Boomerang, a cantankerous, aged and now ailing, mule.
Mrs. Baggert - Housekeeper. Kindly, and "loves Tom like a son." Employed by the Swift family since the time Tom's mother died. She is short of stature and has to stand on a soap box to kiss Tom goodbye on one of his voyages. Excitable, she seems to expect fatalities after any mishap involving Tom's inventions.
Garrett Jackson - Aged (65+ years old) "engineer" who is more a handyman/machinist and watchman type than engineer. Resides on Swift estate, now in an "apartment" inside the Swift home.
Barney Moker - Miserly, paranoid and opportunistic town "character." Neighbor to Swift estate. Likes to shout a lot. Accuses Tom of mayhem & attempted murder when his dining room wallpaper is scorched by a stray plasma bullet from the Electric Rifle.
Alexander (Aleck) Durban - No description given. African big game hunter and safari leader. Visiting his sister ( Mrs. Douglass ) in Waterford while shopping for a new elephant rifle, in Shopton, of all places.
Mrs. Douglass - NFN or description given. Sister of Durban, above. Passing mention.
Mr. Wakefield Damon - Elderly & eccentric adventurer whose main purpose in life seems to be blessing everybody and everything near his person. Lousy shot with a rifle. (Not a good hunting companion, in my book.)
Miss Mary Nestor - Love interest of Our Hero. Passing mention in this episode.
Floyd Anderson - Of Earthquake Island. (See book #6) On his way to Africa to rescue missionaries captured by the Red Pygmies. (See below.)
Cast of assorted steamship passengers and sailors - Provide an admiring audience when Tom zaps an attacking whale with his rifle during their trans-Atlantic voyage.
Mr. Laster - NFN or description given. Mate of SS Soudalar. The boat attracts the interest of the whale, forcing Tom to zap it, as above.
Captain Wendon -- NFN or description given. Master of SS Soudalar. Passing mention, except as possible customer for one of Tom's rifles.
King of the Natives - No name given. Large black native, dressed in a leopard-skin cloak and a derby hat.
Interpreter - No name or description given, except "small." Plays part of Mutt to King's Jeff.
Red Pygmies - Central African tribe, noted as fierce and ruthless warriors. Short of stature (~ 1 meter tall) and covered in reddish-tan hair, they make up in numbers and aggressiveness what they lack in size.
Tomba - Native manservant of Illingways. Escapes captivity and summons help to rescue his charges. Somehow is able to see in pitch dark jungle, said ability being crucial, late in the story.
Rev. and Mrs. Jacob Illingway - No descriptions given. Protestant Missionaries to the Dark Continent, captured and imprisoned by the Red Pygmies. Mrs. Illingway's first name is never mentioned.
Andy Foger - Red haired, squinty-eyed bully, who has made great trouble for Tom in the past. In this tome, demonstrates a spark of goodness and remorse for past transgressions. May there be hope for him, yet???
Herr Landbacher - NFN or description given. German Aeronaut, designer and builder of both Andy's "Slugger" ( See book # 9 ) and this episode's long-range airship. Oh-for-two in the airship design department, since both crash.
Tom Swift finishes inventing something major in this book, the Electric Rifle. Introduced in a previous episode, (The Caves of Ice) the device is now more-or-less complete. It still needs some work, as the stun/kill/disintegrate adjustment is too indiscriminate. Also, due to the extreme destructive power at the terminal distance, safety issues regarding accidental discharge or mis-adjustment need to be addressed.
The rifle resembles an oversized (but lightweight) heavy-game firearm in appearance, except for "dials, levers, gears and wheels" on the shoulder stock. It throws a (plasma?) "bullet" that can be adjusted to "discharge" at a given range with a force varying from "stun" to "disintegrate." (See photos, below.) The WSoD part (Willing Suspension of Disbelief) of this invention, is the ability of this charge to travel thru walls and intervening barriers without loss of energy, "find" a target that cannot be seen and selectively dump its' energy on that target only. A lion, carrying off a tribesman is killed in its tracks, while the injured native (clamped in the lion's jaws) is unharmed. The rifle is charged by a small dynamo and contains a storage device for this charge in a cylinder contained in the butt-stock. This is presumed to be a capacitor or battery, although no details are given. No "magazine capacity" is quoted, but Tom never seems to have to reload. Also, there is no annoying recoil, noise or smoke produced when it is fired.
The Black Hawk is also designed, built and flown in this episode. ( In record time, to boot.) A smaller, lighter, and faster, yet equally luxurious cousin to the destroyed Red Cloud, it has all the comforts of the previous airship, plus extended range and the ability to run the driving propellers in "stealth mode" via auxiliary electric motors. No dimensions are stated, but that gas bag would have to be mighty small and sleek to get this beast to exceed the stated top speed of Red Cloud (90mph.) Red Cloud as a speed ship, was frankly, ludicrous. Something with a span exceeding 300ft and the frontal area of a large hay-barn, just will not go 90mph on a 20hp motor, no matter how well tuned up it is.
Commentary on Society, Attitudes, Environment & Errata
It's amazing how much society and technology have changed in 95 years. Reading the old Tom Swift Sr. series has really given me an appreciation of all the modern gadgets that I've come to take for granted, like modern transportation and communications. It also gives me an appreciation as to how much society has changed, too. I wonder what people will be taking for granted 100 years from now, and what they will think of our times, mores and attitudes?
Attitudes, Prejudices and Circumstances - The 3rd Law of Gun Safety - Always Be Sure Of Your Target And What Is Behind It is casually disregarded, with near-disastrous results. Tom's "magic bullets" travel through all barriers (including any thickness of armor plate) and due to careless handling and inadequate forethought, he scorches a hole in his neighbor's house. A potential lawsuit is forestalled by an out-of-court settlement (some things never change...) amounting to the princely sum of $12 cash. The sum is said to be sufficient to re-wallpaper the entire room. Prices are interesting. The New York Times sells for 5˘, and the hardcover (presumably 2nd edition) volume of Electric Rifle (ER) that I have in my collection sold for $.50, a 25% increase over the original edition's posted price of $.40. Steep, for a kid's book in 1911. Ivory is already becoming scarce and expensive, with a set of prime elephant tusks bringing $1000. In spite of this, it is OK to go decimate not one, but several elephant herds, just to harvest their teeth. Back to the "gun stuff:" Tom sets up a human (scarecrow) target to practice on, in direct contrast to his previous attitude regarding shooting people. In a previous episode, he was attacked and given a serious concussion/head wound, by a hatchet-wielding bad-guy. Although armed at the time, he refused to shoot in self-defense. This attitude seems to whipsaw back and forth throughout the series. One thing that does remain constant is, that it appears to be OK to shoot people, as long as they are "savages." Africa is still a great unknown, even to the authors of this series. Eradicate, is Negro and likely an ex-slave. He is presumed to have been born in the USA, probably during the Civil War years from his age, but is expected to "have friends on the Dark Continent, and to know the language(s)." Those (Black) friends are without exception, described variously as "simple folk, easily frightened and superstitious, dressed in loincloths, bones, leaves and feathers." All are "savages," and "caper" and "chatter" when excited. The (Red) folk are denigrated even more, being described as above plus as "imps, only subject to the vengeance of the White man." This may reflect my own prejudices, but the very first image that came to my mind regarding the enmity between these two varicolored peoples was a documentary I saw as a child about large black and small, but numerically superior red ants. They were mindlessly warring. It was an old documentary, and perhaps the authors were inspired by it or something similar, when writing this tome. ( BTW, in the documentary the black ants were swarmed by their smaller foes and lost the "war.") Interestingly, rescuing the missionaries was always secondary to getting ivory. There appeared to be no rush to find the Illingways, in spite of imminent danger of death. Mr. Anderson's presence was solely for the purpose of rescuing the captured church people.
Errata- Mr. Damon is back in Waterford, NY. I'm going to have to start a score sheet to keep track of his many moves between there and Waterfield. On p36 Tom destroys some bix (big) boxes with his rifle, during target practice. I can't rationalize what makes a wood packing crate explode when hit by a plasma bolt. Burn, yes, but I expect there would not be enough water in the wood to cause a steam explosion. On p92, Ned can't tell a Hippo from a Pachyderm. (Not sure I want him going hunting with me, either...) On p186, the ER fired at full charge mows down natives in rows (a la Civil War cannon shot) rather than disintegrating them, as it does with animals. On p195, the black natives suddenly become hostile. They previously had been friendly and/or superstitiously awed by the airship. Tom bombs them from the air. Poison blowgun dart wounds are merely treated with antiseptic. Tomba, the Illingways' African servant speaks like a South Carolina cotton-harvester. Pidgin English or trade-lingo would have been more fitting.
Character development in the episode stunk. Many characters (even main ones) are introduced without so much as mention of their full names or descriptions. Andy Foger appears to turn over a new leaf in this tome, begging Tom for forgiveness for past wrongdoings. In the next volume, he's right back to his old tricks and attitudes. Different author or bad staff coordination at G&D? Actually, the writing style is enough different in this volume, that I suspect a new ghost writer was brought on board to do this one. Since the writing style reverts in the next volume, this author's career at G&D may have been short.
Engineering and Science, Fact vs. Fantasy The secret of the Electric Rifle seems to have been lost to modern man. The idea of a variable strength, select-range weapon that is "safe" until it reaches the intended target, is still beyond the technology of 2005. Self-seeking missiles and timed ranging small-arms projectiles are reality, today, but not in the clean, simple and environmentally friendly package that Tom has invented. Have no fear, though. We will some day develop this weapon. A glimpse into the Hollywood time machine confirms this. The images, below, are © 1956 by Turner Communications, from Forbidden Planet. Note the "illuminating charges."
Electric Rifle & Pistol In Action Electric Pistol Variant Set On "Toast."
The Black Hawk is "smaller, lighter and faster than the Red Cloud. I always figured the Red Cloud was written out of The Caves of Ice, because the authors finally figured out that you can't get something with the frontal area of a large hay-barn to fly fast enough to make wings effective, much less go 90mph. Also, how you attach those wings to a gas bag, rigid or not, was never explained. Like a horse going back to a burning barn, they needed an aircraft with VTOL and a dirigible-ish device was all that was available for Tom to "improve." I wonder if the 3rd generation "improved lifting gas" was less flammable and hazardous than the fist two variants. Tom also seems to have solved the problem of significant gas bag leakage, too.
Geography & Environment - It's apparent that the authors gained much of their "knowledge" of Africa by watching Johnny Weissmuller movies. WaitóJohn was only 7 years old in 1911, and the 1st Tarzan movie was released in 1918. Hm! Still, the "jungle" as described is very Hollywood stereotypical and the flora, fauna and native tribesmen are all straight out of Southern California. Perhaps the writers in TinselTown read Tom Swift as kids? See the following site for more "jungle" info:
In reality, the only place in the interior of Africa to encounter all the various critters Tom slew (Cape Buffalo, Elephant, Rhino, Lion and Python) is either Kenya or Uganda. Both have the varied topography that was encountered, but both are a bit short on true "jungle," as was described. Kenya's coast is heavily forested, but most of the "jungle" action took place in the interior. In any case, boating to a coastal port of Kenya and flying west might have been more efficient than the route they took, flying east. Africa is a BIG place.
JP Karenko 6/10/05
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